Mayor John Stromberg has said that the creation of an economic development strategy for Ashland may be the most important thing that happens during his time in office.

Mayor John Stromberg has said that the creation of an economic development strategy for Ashland may be the most important thing that happens during his time in office.

But what exactly is an economic development strategy, and why should the city spend $150,000 in hotel tax revenue to craft such a plan?

The strategy is meant to guide future efforts and decisions about economic development in Ashland. It will spell out what the city government should do in that effort, and what tasks should be left to businesses and organizations like the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, according to city officials.

The Eugene-based consulting firm ECONorthwest, which has examined economic opportunities for Ashland in the past, defines economic development as a process to improve a community's well-being through job creation, business growth and income growth. Improving the broader social and natural environment that strengthens the economy — in other words, enhancing the quality of life — is important as well.

As part of an economic development goal adopted in 2009, the Ashland City Council wants to use the strength of the town's tourism industry while also diversifying the economy, boosting the number of family-wage jobs and encouraging companies that make local products.

For years, Ashland has relied on tourism, but the external economic environment has become more unpredictable, as seen by last fall's near-collapse of the financial industry, Stromberg said.

It's not clear yet whether the government has fixed the nation's financial industry, and America's economy remains too reliant on credit, he said.

Even before those problems became clear, many knew that Ashland's economy wasn't diverse enough, he said.

"People can do well with restaurants and lodging in the summer, but they struggle in the winter. We need a diverse, robust, flexible and resilient economy," Stromberg said.

He said businesses that start here and want to grow have trouble expanding. Young people who get their educations in Ashland often feel they have to leave to find good jobs.

"There's an incomplete quality to our local economy," Stromberg said.

Ashland's economy would be more sustainable if people and businesses could find the products and services they need locally. That would keep money flowing within the community, he said.

Ashland City Councilor Russ Silbiger shares Stromberg's view that creating an economic development plan for Ashland is a key task.

"I think it will be the most critical challenge the city has taken on," said Silbiger, who is chair of a newly formed Economic Development Committee that began meeting in late 2009.

The committee, made up of a diverse group of residents from the business, nonprofit, government and education sectors, will work on creation of the plan into 2010. Community input will also be sought.

"We can all say we want year-round living wage jobs," Silbiger said. "But what do we do to get them? We say we want to grow businesses. They can grow and move to Medford for half the cost."

Like Stromberg, Silbiger said Ashlanders also have to grapple with the larger economic picture.

In order for America's economy to rebound, people have to spend more. But over-spending and over-consumption are part of what got the country into trouble in the first place, Silbiger said.

Silbiger said he isn't trying to predict the outcome of the economic development strategy. It may point to a need for the city government to devote staff to economic development, or it may conclude the Ashland Chamber of Commerce or another entity is better suited for that role, he said.

The city already has shifted employee Adam Hanks, who previously focused on planning and code enforcement issues, into the administration department so he can spend more time on the creation of the economic development plan.

Dean Cropper, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cropper Medical in Ashland, was tapped by Stromberg to sit on the Economic Development Committee. He has lived in Ashland since 1986 and manufactures products like back, knee and ankle braces.

Cropper said he believes it's important for the city to create an economic development plan.

"The economic development of a community and the economic health of a community keep a community alive. The city needs to be vigilant about watching for opportunities," he said.

Cropper said people often move to Ashland, but they don't often bring businesses to town. Retirement money doesn't develop the strength of a community, he said.

"To maintain business health, there has to be someone watching the helm. Ashland has coasted on its laurels," Cropper said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.